Well here we go again with J.T. Miller.
2013 has been nothing if not eventful for the former first-round pick, who, for the past two months, has rode the whims of team management like Disneyworld’s Tower of Terror. Up then down, up then down, up, up, up, and then down once more. And now, for the third time this season, the Rangers have recalled Miller from Hartford with the impulse the same as always: the team needs more offense.
Miller, they’re hoping, can provide it. His numbers with the big club so far are underwhelming, with just one goal and one assist through 17 games, but the kid has undeniable talent. Seven goals and nine points over eight games with the Wolf Pack certainly attest to that. And thus Miller finds himself in a funny place.
He’s proven to the Rangers that he’s outgrown the AHL; he’s yet to show them he’s ready for anything more. Like a youngster at Foot Locker, he’s stuck between the eights and the nines, too big for one, not quite big enough for the other. And unlike the MLB, where prospects can develop at one of three minor league levels, there’s no size 8½ in hockey. For Miller, it’s Hartford or New York.
For now until (at least) December 28 – when the holiday roster freeze ends – it’s New York. That leaves Miller four games to make a strong case for himself as an everyday NHL player, and convince the club to keep him around. It might not happen the first night, but by game three or four Miller will need to fill these bigger shoes from heel to toe.
That means from one end of the rink to the other. Because as a third line center, Miller’s responsibilities aren’t congested in one area of the ice. Where first- and second-line players are on the ice to create offense, the bottom six guys are deployed to stabilize the game.
When Rick Nash is on the ice for a goal against for example, the team takes it in stride, knowing that’s the simple risk for his every reward. (Whether or not this is statistically true, the logic remains the same.) But when it’s Dominic Moore (or Miller) who’s standing flat-footed when the other team scores, free-passes aren’t as liberally distributed.
So Miller will have to display a higher level of defensive awareness than he has in the past to keep a locker in The Garden. If the minuses continue to pile up (-6 so far), he’ll find himself right back in Hartford. But the easiest way for Miller to earn a permanent place with the Rangers – the way Chris Kreider has – is to simply score a few goals. Do that, and the plus/minus will take care of itself.
In fact if Miller, whose vast skill set is belied by his NHL numbers, can start to produce at a reasonably consistent pace – say, a point every other game – Alain Vigneault might start looking the other way when he misses an assignment in the defensive zone. This team is so desperate for offense at this point that they’ll take any drawbacks that might come with it.
And Miller also has this working in his favor: the Rangers don’t have any better alternatives. Since sending him down after a December 8 loss to the Devils and inserting Aaron Asham and Taylor Pyatt into the lineup, citing a need for a more heavy-fisted, tight-checking style of play, the Blueshirts have lost four of five. In the process, they’ve allowed 19 goals and scored just 11.
Wait I could have done that, thought Miller. And he’s right. The 20-year-old might not be the most defensively sound player, but neither, apparently, are any of the guys that have played in his place. And unlike them, Miller has the potential to make a difference on the offensive side of the puck. If this team is going to surrender three-ish goals per game either way, they may as well give ice time to the guys who can score themselves.
Miller will certainly get that now. In Friday night’s game against the Islanders, he’ll be centering Brad Richards and Benoit Pouliot, so Miller has the company (at least on one side) that commands ice time. Whether he’s playing well or not, he’ll hear his name called, which means the kid can take some risks. And sooner or later, the risks will bring a reward.
So Miller’s future, at least in the short term, is in his own hands. Where in past stints he’s been buried on the fourth line with little chance to make an impression, he’s in a position now to be noticed. It’s up to him to make his third shot count.